CIVICUS speaks to Radhya Almutawakel, chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni human rights organisation. Mwatana is engaged with a number of issues, including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, women’s rights and the criminalisation of human rights defenders. It uses a variety of tools, including data collection through field visits and monitoring compliance with domestic legislation and international standards; advocacy and lobbying with domestic institutions and in international forums; legal support for victims; training of human rights activists; research and dissemination; and campaigning for public awareness.
- What have been the main recent impacts of the conflict on Yemen and Yemeni civil society?
Since the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital, Sana'a, on 21 September 2014, Yemen has entered a new phase of armed conflicts that escalated rapidly. On 26 March 2015, a Saudi Arabia-led Arab Coalition of nine countries launched a military campaign against Houthis and Saleh forces, to support the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, with the United States providing intelligence and logistical support.
Mwatana Organization has documented grave rights violations by the Saudi and Emirates-led coalition resulting in the killing of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children. This coalition has struck residential compounds, public markets, cultural and heritage sites, hospitals, schools, bridges and factories.
We have also documented extensive violations by the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally Saleh, especially in Taiz, including the use of landmines in different areas of the country. Furthermore, we have documented violations including extrajudicial executions by the forces of president Hadi and allied parties and armed groups.
Both parties share responsibility in the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and civilian facilities, child recruitment and denial of humanitarian access, in addition to arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, tortures, violations against the freedom of speech and the disappearance of a free press, harassment of minorities and other grave violations. Civil society had only recently started to develop in Yemen, and all the progress that had been achieved was set back in the current inhospitable environment, characterised by high political instability and a lot of violence.
Before 2011, civil society in Yemen had become fairly strong in the face of a number of violations committed by the Saleh regime. At that point the Saleh regime was the main violator of human rights, and organisations of different affiliations were able to unify against the abuses. But after the 2011 revolution and the ascent of the opposition, which became a partner in government, and because of the multiplicity of violators as well as the increasing political polarisation, the voice of these organisations was significantly diminished and they were not able to form any more alliances or even initiate any kind of joint work. It was clear that human rights organisations lacked minimal independence.
In September 2014, when they forcefully seized the capital, Sana’a, and expanded into the neighbouring provinces, Houthi armed groups and their ally, former president Saleh, tightened their grip on President Hadi and his government. President Hadi then escaped to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition including other neighbouring countries launched a military operation in Yemen, and established armed groups to support President Hadi in the fight against the Houthis. All these political developments weakened Yemeni civil society to unprecedented levels. Rights violations against organisations and their staff increased exponentially and the scope of the work they were allowed to do dramatically decreased. Many human rights, humanitarian and development organisations were forced to reduce their activities and staff or close down altogether.
- How have the various forces involved in the conflict impacted on civil society?
The first weapon wielded by conflicting parties against independent civil society organisations, and especially against human rights organisations, has been the orchestration of extensive incitement and smear campaigns through social media as well as their own private networks. By defaming independent human rights organisations, all conflicting parties have prejudiced the public against the work of such organisations and their employees. Mwatana Organization and its staff have been the victims of many of these campaigns launched by either Houthi- Saleh armed groups or by Saudi Arabia and the Hadi Government and their allies in Yemen.
Many activists, including members of the Mwatana team, have been threatened and detained by all conflicting parties, because of their work. Countless restrictions have been placed on human rights, humanitarian and development-related activities in the field, to the extent that long procedures and several official permits are now required to carry out a single training activity – with a good chance that even after going through all the hassle the activity might end up not being authorised at all. The same is the case with a wide variety of studies and research. Many restrictions have also been imposed by all parties on traveling to and from Yemen.
In addition, there are a number of dangers that stem from the armed conflict itself. Yemen is now ruled by a number of armed groups – the Houthi-Saleh armed groups, on one hand, and the Hadi government and the armed groups loyal to it, on the other. Armed conflict is taking place on many fronts, with an intensive airstrike campaign by the US-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Nobody has made any attempt whatsoever to shield civil society organisations or their staff from the impact of the armed conflict; in fact, many of them have been endangered while carrying out their duties.
Violations of the freedom of expression are commonplace, and media diversity is lacking. In fact, civil society organisations lost an independent media outlet that had previously helped make their voice heard. As a result, social media have become the key outlet for many human rights and humanitarian organisations. However, conflicting parties are now trying to disable this platform as well, by using an army of trolls to defame any independent civil society work.
As for human rights work more specifically, all parties are seeking to corrupt civil society by establishing their own biased organisations and deploying funds to deform civil society work and justify various human rights violations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made considerable efforts to prevent the United Nations’ Human Rights Council from passing a resolution to establish an international mechanism to investigate violations by all warring parties in Yemen. After three years of sustained efforts by international and local human rights organisations and allied governments, however, the process came to a successful conclusion in September 2017, when a resolution was passed and an independent international group of experts was mandated to investigate abuses.
- What role is being played by outside forces, and what motivates these forces to be involved in the conflict?
Unfortunately, outside forces have played a destructive role in Yemen, either through direct military intervention, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and its allies, or by supporting one of the warring forces, as has been the case of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, which have supported Saudi Arabia, and of Iran, which has backed the Houthis. The declared goal of the military operation launched by Saudi Arabia was “to reinstate President Hadi” but it has destroyed the country in the process. They have indiscriminately bombarded people, homes, schools, hospitals and monuments. Although it managed to expel Houthis from the southern governorates, the state is not yet functionally back in charge of these governorates. No state institutions, including a judiciary, have been activated, and no national army has been established. In comparison, the promotion of armed groups has not ceased, and worryingly, some of these are extremist and fundamentalist religious groups.
Instead of promoting peace in Yemen, powerful nations like the United States, the United Kingdom and France have aligned to support Saudi Arabia either through considerable arms deals or through multi-faceted political support. One of the worst results of this was their lobbying against the establishment of an international mechanism for investigating violations committed by warring parties in Yemen.
As for Iranian support of the Houthis, their intervention resembles a situation in which there is a mouse running around a residential building, and the building gets destroyed when searching for the mouse, and in the end neither is the building saved nor is the mouse ever found.
After two years of war in Yemen, I can confidentially say that none of the internal or external warring parties have a clear vision of what to do next. The only undisputable fact of this war is that Yemen has become a humanitarian man-made catastrophe.
- What activities is Yemeni civil society still able to carry out? Does this vary by region?
Despite all the obstacles facing civil society in Yemen, there are a number of human rights and humanitarian organisations that still struggle on the ground to play a variety of roles. A number of humanitarian organisations are working to deliver humanitarian aid and services to affected populations; human rights organisations keep working to document human rights violations; and development organisations are carrying on their educational and training programmes in territories ruled both by Saleh and Houthi armed groups and by Hadi and the armed groups that are loyal to him.
- What would it take to build peace in Yemen, and what roles could civil society play in this?
To achieve peace in Yemen, all the warring parties would need to take steps to reduce pressure on civilians and build confidence. This includes ceasing human rights violations, releasing detainees, giving more space to humanitarian, human rights and media organisations to do their work, agreeing on a mechanism to pay salaries, re-activating the Hodeidah seaport, re-opening Sana’a airport, and fulfilling a variety of urgent humanitarian requirements.
At the international level, arms deals with the warring parties must be stopped, and the priority of human rights issues must be established. Yemen also needs a new peace process with the international community playing an independent and stable role. Dialogue must bring in all parties on the ground, with no exclusions.
- What support does Yemeni civil society need, including from international civil society and the intergovernmental system, now that a UN resolution establishing a commission of inquiry has been passed?
Civil society needs to build capacities in every aspect of their competence; it needs to ‘professionalise’ and reinforce its resource base with long-term projects. There is need of support for the construction of Yemen’s institutions, and capacity needs to be built so that institutions are able to respond to the deteriorating situation.
- As a result of increasing restrictions on civil society, Yemen’s civic space rating was recently downgraded to the lowest category, closed, by the CIVICUS Monitor.
- Get in touch with Mwatana Organization for Human Rights through their website or Facebook page, or follow @mwatanaen and @RAlmutawakel on Twitter.